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Kitzhaber Warns Feds on Missing Recovery Targets

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 3, 2002

Oregon's governor on Tuesday again challenged the Northwest and country as a whole to attack the salmon recovery issue at full power or be turned down a road of social, economic and legal chaos that leads ultimately to dam breaching.

The 29-dam federal Columbia Basin hydrosystem has been a blessing, literally building and sustaining the region's strong industrial base. It has also "allowed irrigated agriculture to flourish in an otherwise arid basin - and they have given us a low-cost transportation route from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, more than 400 miles inland," Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a speech to participants at the "Toward Ecosystem-based Management: Breaking Down the Barriers in the Columbia River Basin and Beyond" conference in Spokane.

But the hydro system also has a "dark side," Kitzhaber said, drastically changing the natural environment and imperiling fish and wildlife, including 12 species of salmon and steelhead listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The conference included gatherings of the American Fisheries Society's Western Division and North Pacific International Chapter, the Lake Roosevelt Forum, the Sustainable Fisheries Foundation and the Transboundary Group. (For more on the conference, see Story No. 12).

Kitzhaber twice drew standing ovations from the crowd of scientists, biologists, policy makers and others as he described a salmon recovery effort that has foundered and inappropriately dismissed the option of breaching four lower Snake River dams.

"I entered into that debate on Feb. 18, 2000, in a speech to the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society. The statement I made then is as valid now as it was twenty-six months ago - perhaps, even more so," Kitzhaber said of the speech that he admits caused him to lose more than a pound of political flesh. He remains the only major political figure in the Northwest that views dam breaching as a viable tool for salmon recovery.

"That fact is that if we look at the policy trade-offs involved -- at the other choices we must make if we choose to leave these dams intact -- breaching emerges as a responsible and cost-effective option. It is not the only option, but it is a responsible one that should not be disregarded out of hand," told the crowd of more than 500 conference attendees.

"Some will say that we have not done enough science. I say that we can always play that card as an excuse for inaction and as a justification for avoiding tough choices. But exactly what additional scientific experiment is necessary to demonstrate that it is easier for salmon to migrate in a free-flowing river than to negotiate a several hundred foot high concrete barrier?"

"Some will say that it is too expensive. I say, look at the other alternatives. There are similar -- if not greater -- costs associated with a non-breach strategy," Kitzhaber said. "Some will say that it is too controversial. I say, what isn't? Who here thinks that it is not controversial to cut harvest levels? To change agricultural and timber practices on private land or to significantly augment flows?"

Kitzhaber said the federal government has essentially dodged the dam breaching issue by announcing a recovery plan in December 2000 that focuses on making the hydrosystem more fish friendly, restoring habitat and modifying harvest and hatchery operations. The governor cited a recent Save Our Wild Salmon report that gives the federal government failing grades for implementation of the recovery plan.

"The federal government must honor the Salmon Plan and demonstrate its success, or be prepared to embrace lower Snake River dam removal …," Kitzhaber said.

"Now, for those who think that this report and its conclusion are merely the biased product of a subjective stakeholder in this debate, I suggest a brief examination of the federal funding commitment to implementing the plan for 2003 - the first checkpoint.

"The federal caucus - the nine federal agencies with responsibility for carrying out the plan - concluded that full implementation in 2003 would require an annual budget in excess of $900 million. The Bush Administration has requested $506 million, only fifty-five percent of what is needed," Kitzhaber said.

"Given that the 2001 and 2002 budgets to implement the plan were both under funded by fifty percent, we see a disturbing pattern emerging. And unless something changes dramatically in the near future, this rate of funding and effort will virtually ensure that we will not meet the targets next year or in 2005.

"There are two theories about the current ecosystem recovery effort. The more cynical one is that it represents little more than a strategy to avoid the dam breaching issue, to maintain the status quo and to just hope that the problem will go away.

"The second theory - and the one to which I have given the benefit of the doubt for the past two years - is that we are engaged in a sincere and committed effort to restore the ecosystem. That viewpoint, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

"Without full funding of the recovery plan for 2003, without taking on the political difficult actions - ensuring adequate flows, for example, or modifying the operation of the dams to comply with the temperature and dissolved oxygen requirements of the Clean Water Act - the sincerity of this effort will be called into question," the governor said.

"As I pointed out two years ago -- we have to stop deluding ourselves into believing that our choices will be easier and cheaper if we just leave the dams alone. Our choices won't be easier. They'll be just as tough. Our costs might be lower, but only on the margin. And that is proving to be exactly the case.

"In essence, the 2000 NMFS Biologic Opinion shifts the responsibility of recovery from the hydroelectric system to the other three "H's:" habitat, harvest and hatcheries. But if we do not adequately fund these efforts nor aggressively pursue their implementation, it should come as no surprise to the Northwest political establishment -- or the Administration -- that the focus will inevitably shift back to the dams - not just in the form of renewed calls for breaching, but in a flurry of lawsuits targeting the entire Federal Columbia River Power System.

"It is already happening. As a former emergency room physician, I am as leery of lawsuits as one can get. Suing people has never been my tool of first choice. But as governor, I find myself involved in no less than three lawsuits on the Columbia: the lawsuit over the Biologic Opinion itself, the lawsuit over whether or not the dams have to comply with the Clean Water Act, and the lawsuit over whether fish and wildlife have receive equitable treatment as called for in the Northwest Power Act."

The powers that be must embrace the plan fully, or face the consequences, he said.

"I submit to you that we are headed for the same future here in the Columbia River Basin - an environmental, economic and a community crisis -- similar to what is playing out in the Klamath, except on a far larger scale," Kitzhaber said of the ongoing tug of war over precious water in the southern Oregon-northern California river basin.

"The result has been an economic, environmental and community disaster - leaving 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland without water; inadequate stream flows and lake levels to support endangered fish and wildlife; and a community torn by fear, doubt, unemployment and - increasingly - by anger, alienation, polarization and acts of civil disobedience," the governor said of the Klamath situation.

And the fundamental question before us is whether we are going to go the way of the Klamath here on the Columbia, or whether we will choose a different future. The question is whether we will be architects of our own destiny, or simply fall victim to the circumstances we have created."

Related Pages:
Gov. John Kitzhaber

Barry Espenson
Kitzhaber Warns Feds on Missing Recovery Targets
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 3, 2002

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